One way to find out is to ask how the math worked for six (Progressive) Conservative wins dating back to 1962. Excluding the freakishly large Mulroney win in 1984, examples of Conservative wins provide insight as to how O’Toole can find his pathway to power.
Of these six examples, only two resulted in majorities. One example – Mulroney ’88 – was the ‘Quebec-Alberta bridge’, where the PC’s dominated in both. The second example – Harper 2011 – was domination in English Canada.
(This article updated – first published in 2019)
Dief won a minority government in 1962 following a massive majority he won in 1958. In the ’62 campaign, Dief’s Tories won 44% of the seats on 37.2% of the popular vote.
The plurality was based on winning two-thirds of the seats in the West and North and two-fifths of the seats in Ontario. He lost the huge gains he had made in Quebec.
How did he win a plurality? Domination in the West by winning almost three-quarters of the seats there, and winning a strong majority (60%) of seats in Ontario.
While he won a majority of seats in Atlantic Canada, he was virtually shut out of Quebec. This template was virtually the one with which Harper won a majority with in 2011.
Won big in the West, won majority of seats in Ontario, but blown out in Quebec
Brian Mulroney won everywhere in 1984 in what was truly a change election. However, in 1988, the ‘free trade election’, it was much more competitive. In the West, Mulroney had to contend with an upstart Reform Party and strong NDP campaigns.
Mulroney managed a majority of seats in the West (54%) but Conservative share of seats in that region was the lowest level of these six examples. While Alberta was dominated by PCs, BC went NDP and Liberals made gains in Manitoba. The PC’s came close to winning a majority of seats in Ontario (47%). The big difference was Quebec. Unlike the five other examples, Mulroney won big in la belle province, taking 84% of its seats. The Quebec-Alberta bridge delivered a majority – the PC’s held 57% of the seats in the House of Commons.
Won big in Quebec to complement bare majority (50%) of seats in combined West/Ontario
In Stephen Harper’s first successful election, he won a plurality (40% of seats) with 36% of the popular vote. The Conservatives won two-thirds of the seats in the West but less than two-fifths of the seats in Ontario. The shape of Harper’s win was similar to Dief’s in 1962 except that Dief won in Atlantic Canada and Harper fell far short. Both did poorly in Quebec. But after 13 years of Liberal government, a win’s a win!
Won big in the West, fell short in Ontario
Stephen Harper fought hard for a majority in 2008 but fell just short with 46% of the seats on 38% of the popular vote. The shape of this win was similar to 2006, except that the Conservatives amped it up in the West (76% of seats) and Ontario (48% of seats). They continued to fall short in Quebec (13%) and Atlantic Canada (31%). Compared to 1962 and 1979, the West/Ontario rose from 59% to 65% of the seats in the House of Commons making it more possible to win with a strong position in those regions, but Harper needed a clear win in Ontario in 2008 and he didn’t get it. In the aftermath of the 2008 election, Harper almost saw his minority mandate slip away when the opposition parties ganged up to – almost – catapult outgoing Liberal leader Stephane Dion into 24 Sussex Drive. It surely made Rt. Hon. Stephen Harper hungrier for a majority the next time.
Won big in the West, fell short in Ontario – again
Harper finally gets his majority winning 54% of the seats on the strength of 40% of the popular vote. The Conservatives dominated the West (78% of seats) and Ontario (69% of seats). They also raised their game in Atlantic Canada (44% of seats) while falling back in Quebec (7% of seats).
The Harper win was a souped-up Joe Clark pathway to power – winning everywhere while being trounced in Quebec. The difference was that Harper got more out of the West and Ontario than Clark.
Won very big in the West, won strong majority in Ontario
Table 1: Popular vote, Percentage of total seats for examples
What it means for O’Toole
Given the Conservatives’ chronic lack of success in Québec, O’Toole’s Conservatives must dominate Western Canada while pushing toward a majority of seats in Ontario. There are now more seats in these two regions than there were in the examples listed above.
West (and North) 107 seats + Ontario 121 seats = 228 seats (67% of all seats in the House of Commons)
The Conservatives dominated Alberta and Saskatchewan in 2019 – 69% of the popular vote in Alberta and 64% in Saskatchewan, winning all but one seat. It was a Big Blue Wave from Yellowhead to Prince Albert. The swamping of the prairies helped the Conservatives win the national popular vote, which was cold comfort considering we measure power by the seats. Outside of Alberta and Saskatchewan, Scheer’s Conservatives didn’t measure up. They didn’t get enough out of B.C., Québec, the Atlantic, and certainly did not get enough out of Ontario. In fact, the Liberals virtually locked in their 2015 Ontario results onto the 2019 map.
Erin O’Toole’s team has clearly decided that winning big on the Prairies and losing big in Ontario is a pathway to Stornaway. The Conservative campaign has shifted its focus to appeal more broadly in urban and suburban ridings, especially Ontario. As is often the bargain, move in one direction and face a rearguard action from the other. Gains made in the middle have been challenged by populist rage on the right under the leadership of Mad Max.
O’Toole cannot replicate the Mulroney ’88 win – he doesn’t have the support in Québec and may lose seats in Alberta as well. It does not look like O’Toole has the support to pull off the Harper 2011 majority win which was dominance in the West and a strong majority in Ontario.
He’s looking at a Dief ’62 / Clark ’79 model – strong showing in the West and stronger showing in Ontario compared to Scheer, combined with modest gains in Québec and the Atlantic. B.C. is a wildcard – he really needs to push toward winning half of the 42 seats in B.C. (a gain of 4), but throughout this campaign, public polling indicates a competitive three-way race without any party pulling away to make major gains. We’ll see.
Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives lost 157-121 in seats. A simplistic view is for O’Toole to hold steady outside of Ontario and flip 20 seats in Ontario, for a narrow plurality. The Liberals won Ontario by 9-points in 2019 and have not been near that mark so far in public polling. So, if O’Toole can get to Joe Clark levels in Ontario, and nets out the same in the rest of Canada, he might get there.
But it isn’t that easy. Despite how tantalizing the opportunity in the middle is to Conservative strategists, a renegade crew of angry, non-vaxxed populists could put a barricade across the pathway to victory by weakening fortress Alberta and splitting the vote in key battlegrounds. In this respect, there are parallels to Mulroney’s ’88 win in that the PC’s had to fend off pesky Preston Manning and the Reform Party in order to protect the fortress. Mulroney defended his fortress in 1988 before watching the walls crumble in 1993; the assault on O’Toole’s fortress is happening in real-time.
Prime Minister O’Toole? It could happen, but he needs a combination of Joe Clark math and Mulroney ’88 magic.
In a future post, I will look at the Liberal path to re-election.
Table 1: Results from six (Progressive) Conservative wins
How many times has Québec gone one way and the rest-of-Canada (ROC) went the other? Quite a few, in fact. There are different campaigns playing out in different languages, with different traditions, and different versions of history. It’s pretty tough to knit Québec and ROC into one coherent national campaign.
Pierre Trudeau famously took 74 out of 75 seats in Québec in 1980 and formed a majority government without winning a seat west of Winnipeg. That was after Joe Clark had formed a minority PC government in 1979 after being almost completely shut out in Québec. Stephen Harper’s Conservatives won a majority in 2011 based almost entirely on his dominance of English Canada.
What does current polling tell us about the potential for a majority government?
In 2004, the Conservatives and Liberals were basically tied in ROC, when Paul Martin formed a minority government. They diverged in 2006 with the Conservatives gaining an upper hand and achieved their own minority. The gap widened in 2008, though the Conservatives still fell short of a majority as ROC gains could not overcome Conservative weakness in Québec. In 2011, the Conservatives received almost a majority of the votes (47%) in ROC while the Liberals plunged to an historic low. While Jack Layton had an uptick in ROC, the big story was a transfer of Liberals to the Conservative column. The Justin Trudeau Liberals made a dramatic comeback in 2015, edging the Conservatives in ROC, supplemented by their gains in Québec. The Conservatives won ROC in 2019, yet failed to win government, and the gap between the two parties in ROC, so far, in 2021 election polling is about the same. Bear in mind that the Conservatives have done well in ROC because they do so well in Alberta. This election, they are running about 20% lower in Alberta (yet will likely hold almost all of their seats), while they are doing better in Ontario relative to the Liberals – that’s a better and more efficient situation seats-wise. The NDP trajectory is surprisingly flat. Even the Layton breakthrough election of 2011 did not see a groundswell in ROC, with the vote staying below 27%.
Current polling showing PPC at 7% in ROC is obviously a significant development and, if it holds, could deny the Conservatives key seat gains and an opportunity to widen the gap with the Liberals. Conversely, late-stage polarization could funnel NDP and Greens to the Liberals. The final days in ROC may well be a furious flurry of strategic voting arguments. Right now, current polling results do not give either party a clear shot at a majority.
How about Québec?
Québec popular vote results
Compared to ROC, Québec has been more volatile since 2004. From 2004 to 2015, it was marked by a steady decline in support for the Bloc Québécois. Its lowest points in 2011 and 2015 coincided with majority governments held by Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau respectively.
The Liberals also declined from 2004 to 2011, but roared to first in 2015 which helped enable a Liberal majority. The Grits held their vote in 2019 while the Bloc was revived at the expense of the NDP. The NDP trajectory goes to show how much the Jack Layton breakthrough depended on Québec, and how far the NDP’s prospects have fallen there since. With the relatively flat trajectory in ROC for the NDP, the current scenario fully returns the NDP to its tradition of being a non-contending party and occasional balance of power. The Conservatives enjoyed a bump up to its highest level during this era in 2006 when the Paul Martin Liberals were shown the door and the Bloc was starting to wave. As the Conservatives governed, they saw their small beachhead dwindle to below 20%. The 2021 election shows a potential uptick for Les Bleus but not likely to materialize in beacoup de circonscriptions.
While interpreting Canada’s regional realities is a lot more complex than just “ROC” and Québec, it is clear that in order to form a majority government, a party needs to win big in one, or win both by at least a little.
With Election Day looming, the Liberals and Conservatives are basically stalemated. The uncertainty of the outcome and the momentum changes are gruelling for those involved in the campaigns. I cannot help but channel my own past experiences and think of the various psychologies that must be at work in the war rooms and among grassroots supporters.
For the Liberals, about a week before the election call, they had the jaunty bounce of those who read positive poll results and gleeful reports of their opponents’ demise. The pundit/Twitter consensus dictated that a majority was to be had, that the Conservatives were “in trouble”, and that the Liberals should “go now” to “get a mandate” – all of this very enticing.
Who knows whether there were voices inside the room that expressed caution, advocated for going earlier, or later. In the days leading up to the August 15th election call, Afghanistan was careening out of control. It’s hard when you have set out a campaign plan, signalled to the world that this is your intention, then face the prospect of pulling back from your plan when the plane is almost in the air. At some moment, the Liberal campaigners must have considered whether the election call should be postponed. But the hawks prevailed.
I can relate to that. The Liberal campaign team has been through the wars. A pitch-perfect come-from-behind win in 2015, a jarring 2019 re-election effort that was preceded by the JWR / SNC Lavalin controversy, blown sideways by blackface, followed by the onslaught of COVID, social movements of “Me Too” and “Black Lives Matter”, and the sorrow unleashed by the identification of 215 unmarked graves at the Kamloops Residential School. They have collectively faced a lot of situations in elections and in government, and Afghanistan was the latest in a long list. Camaraderie, loyalty, and trust is built through tough and challenging times. Plus, let’s face it, Justin Trudeau is a political unicorn – he is a brand unto himself. Every Canadian has an opinion about him, love him or hate him, and when you have that ability to command attention, it’s very unique. The braintrust was undoubtedly confident in him, themselves, and pushed on.
We know now the Liberals did not get their campaign off to an auspicious start, facing a hotter than usual national media corps that had Afghanistan on split screen, demanding to know “Why now?” The Liberals didn’t give a good answer. Immediately, some conjured up ghosts of David Peterson’s Ontario Liberals of 1990 who called a summer election at the seemingly high heights of his powers only to suffer a humiliating and decisive defeat to Bob Rae’s NDP.
What is clear that two weeks into this campaign, the Liberals had an increasingly sticky problem. Voters were shifting, particularly in Ontario. Some excited pollsters proclaimed the Conservative “freight train” was on its way to a majority. Pretty bold. In the Liberal war room, confidence and experience could well have translated into slower reaction to events unfolding around them. However, with confidence and experience, the ability to marshal resources to turn the campaign in another direction could make for a major impact. That brings about memories about past campaigns like 2004 when Paul Martin entered the campaign period as the odds-on favourite, but was pressed hard by upstart Stephen Harper and the newly re-united Conservatives. David Herle, Martin’s campaign manager, spoke on his podcast Curse of Politics about hitting the panic button in 2004 when Liberal polling numbers dipped below 30%. The old plan was thrown into the garbage and a new plan was drawn up. Martin’s Liberals rallied, went negative, dug up some primo opposition research, and formed a minority government.
I was involved in the B.C. election campaign in 2017 where our team was stocked with experience and had an ample supply of confidence. The start of this federal campaign was eerily familiar. A flat start followed by (speaking for myself) a slow-to-realize reckoning about what was happening. The voters were moving with their feet while our campaign heads were up in the clouds. We scrapped and fought to get back on a better footing, but every time we made a step forward, or had a plan we thought would work, we had a setback to stall us. We simply could not pull away from our competition nor could they pull away from us. Similar feeling in 1996 in B.C. where we were way ahead, then we were way behind, and caught back up to even. For the final two weeks, we could not generate momentum and neither could our competition. That feeling you are looking for is when, no matter what you do, it comes up roses, is Momentum. The campaign office buzz gets louder. Everyone is walking faster, with more urgency. Lawn signs fly out of the office. I can only imagine that the second and third weeks of this campaign were challenging for the Liberals – they didn’t have that feeling. They were imploring support, rather than receiving it.
What about the Conservatives? I have been involved in and seen campaigns where there was no faith in the campaign team, the leader, or any prospect of victory. It really comes down to a key distinction – does the campaign team and leader believe in themselves, or is the effort truly doomed?
On the eve of the election call, the Conservative campaign was roundly crapped on for running a juvenile social media ad that was a takeoff of a scene from the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. What were they up to? The political intelligentsia pounced on the perceived amateurism and a Conservative MP was compelled to call out his own national campaign team (never a good sign). Meanwhile, the video got over a million hits. Whether the Conservatives were playing 4-D chess or screwing around is beside the point. The team could have fallen apart amidst caucus and internal discord. Instead, it looks like the Wonka controversy served to reinforce the Conservative campaign’s “us against the world” mentality.
The internal infighting is often the result of insecurity and not believing in the plan as grassroots supporters are influenced by media commentary. There’s nothing that rankled me more than to hear defeatists. “We should try to save our core seats” was a common refrain. My uncle, a WWII veteran, not to mention a candidate for Pearson in ’65, talked about those who got “hemorrhoids on their way to Halifax”, meaning some people weren’t really up for a fight. Or you hear complaints about the campaign team not being up to the job. In fact, I read about my job performance in the Vancouver Sun one day: “some Liberals must be wondering whether McDonald is over his head in this campaign”. I’m sure the columnist had been hearing from a few Schadenfreudians. There’s a lot of them when you’re losing, but they are hard to find when you win.
You gotta ignore the whispers, even when they’re loud, because battle-scarred politicos know that anything is possible. If you have been around long enough, you have seen it happen. I was part of efforts that were more like comets than campaigns – Sharon Carstairs’ Manitoba breakthrough in 1988, Gordon Wilson taking the B.C. Liberals from obscurity to Official Opposition, and watched from afar as Justin Trudeau went from third to first in 2015, and, last month, Nova Scotia’s PC’s taking power after being leagues under water months earlier. Conventional wisdom is often wrong. How many more times does that need to be proven? Most pundits and media experts play it safe. They stick to the consensus. Smart politicos understand and have a pulse for voters and know that they can move quickly, decisively, and sometimes imperceptibly, especially during the writ period. Erin O’Toole and his campaign team likely believed, and likely still do, that they could win. Smaller parties, like the NDP, the Greens, and the Peoples Party cling to the hope of anything is possible as well. Need I say it? Campaigns Matter!
As the campaign moved through its first week, the Conservatives would have been feeling good. They launched successfully, including a smooth platform unveiling. While the Liberals stumbled, Erin O’Toole had a clear path to introduce himself to Canadians. The Conservatives were doing some things differently – the platform, charting a path for middle ground, and communicating and touring in a new way. Likely, they were feeling, “Our plan is starting to work.” They were probably feeling that on the ground too. As the first week rolled into the next, the public polling numbers were creating an environment that Conservative prospects were being taken more seriously, which made the Liberal call of the election a bigger story. Had Justin blown it? A nice run of momentum started to unfold that must have felt like uncharted territory. Who knows what Conservative internal polling numbers showed, but public poll numbers are avidly read by grassroots supporters and the 99% of headquarters staff that don’t see the closely guarded internal tracking. Things were looking up! The Conservative inside voice: “Do we dare to dream? Are we allowed to have nice things?”
Many campaigns go through phases, which makes sense. As one party gets the upper hand, the main rival normally does everything in its power to push back. In situations where a government has been in power for a long time, it’s harder for an incumbent government to push back when ‘time for a change’ is in the air. It has to be compelling. As much as the national media has its inherent biases, they like a big story more. Justin Trudeau blowing the election is a big story. An exciting horse race is a bigger story than a dull pre-determined outcome, like the Chrétien re-elections in 1997 and 2000. With Conservatives on the rise, and Liberals on the ropes, what’s gonna happen next? Is this the end of Justin, or will he prevail again? Stay tuned for more!
The Liberals have amped up the attacks and found one that seemed to hurt – on guns. Frankly, I’m not even sure of the details of the issue. All I heard was that the Conservatives had a policy, and they flip-flopped mid-campaign. That is never a good idea. It’s a tough spot – they likely felt they were taking water in urban and suburban ridings that they targeted for victory in the GTHA and Metro Vancouver, and among attainable younger and female voters. They must have come to believe that they could not persevere with the current policy so decided to course-correct. One wonders how that decision was made, on what timeline, and who was in the room? Was it decided by ‘committee’, were they forced by candidates threatening to speak out, was it a Leader directive? Whatever the case, it created a new problem – a perception that the Leader is a flip-flopper when under pressure. They may have believed their plan would work and talked themselves into it, perhaps without getting an outside read on it. Whether or not voters even care about the gun issue or how the Conservatives responded, it will be having an effect on the Liberal war room by putting wind in their sails, and on the Conservatives who may have the sinking feeling that they were outfoxed by the Liberals on an attack that they had to know was coming. They should have been able see that big red missile from one coast to the other.
In 2013, the BC Liberal campaign seized on a mid-campaign flip flop by the NDP leader. Similarly, it was an issue that everyone could see coming but the NDP tried to finesse it. The narrative became not that issue – oil pipelines – but leadership. The leader was a weathervane.
We are at that point now in this election where it’s truly up for grabs – everyone knows it – with the final French language debate followed by the lone English language debate. By the time the leaders walk off the stage on Thursday night, it’s a ten-day sprint to final voting day.
The debates are high stakes. My first campaign in 1984 was as a lowly, yet devoted young Liberal in no-hope riding. John Turner was a very admirable leader with an impeccable record of public service. Yet, he took on the leadership at the tail end of an almost-uninterrupted 21-year run of Liberal government- and he was rusty. In that year’s election debate, Brian Mulroney delivered a devastating critique of Liberal patronage appointments. The election was over that night, though it limped on for weeks. In 1988, the rematch debate delivered a different thunderbolt when Turner delivered a passionate, patriotic attack on Mulroney over Free Trade. The effect was immediate and the Liberals rocketed to the top of the polls after starting the campaign in third and withstanding an attempted leadership coup. However, Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives had time on their side and wheeled against the Liberals with a furious negative onslaught, prevailing on election night.
In 1991, I attended the B.C. Leaders debate as part of a motley crew of Liberal campaign volunteers. Leader Gordon Wilson strutted around the small CBC dressing room, bare chested, focusing on his breathing exercises, and astutely disregarding the scattershot advice being tossed at him by me and others. He knew what he had to, and he delivered the most memorable line in B.C. election debate history. That debate blew up the campaign and led to the end of the Social Credit Party. I was learning early in my political life that debates matter and how they could turn the psychology of campaigns upside down.
I never had fun watching a debate after 1991. Henceforth, my party was expected to win and no longer a plucky insurgent. Debates brought stress – even when I had nothing to do with the preparation. I could barely watch. When things went well, we cheered, and when things didn’t go well, we rationalized that it wasn’t a big deal, but sometimes you had those “uh oh” moments. Thinking back to provincial debates over the years, I don’t recall many dramatic moments – I just remember a lot of careful preparation undertaken by the debate teams and the pressure on the leaders.
When I directed the 2013 BC Liberal campaign, I had little to do with debate prep. It was not my strength and certainly not my happy place. We had a great team of advisors that thought through the content, the camera angles, and how best to rehearse. But I do remember watching the debate and feeling good and feeling proud of our team and our leader, Christy Clark. It was exactly how you want to feel at a seminal moment of the campaign. Then what followed was that feeling of momentum, not just in my bones, but in our nightly tracking. The debate was a big factor in our ultimate success.
Debate night must be a moment aspiring leaders imagine for years. Other than election night, it is probably the most exciting moment of the campaign, especially when there are fireworks. This is Justin Trudeau’s third election, and Jagmeet Singh’s second. Erin O’Toole is the newcomer. Their relative experience in debates will flow into their leaders’ teams. How to protect against over-confidence? How to build up under-confidence? How to get the leaders in ‘the zone’? And uncluttered. A common problem with leaders is that they are over-scheduled. Have their teams found the right balance to let the Leaders rest, think and prepare, amidst a frenzied election campaign? Have they settled on their final debate strategy or are they spitballing until the stage lights turn on?
The French language debates are over and on English language debate night, thousands of campaign volunteers will be watching every moment and the psychology of their respective campaigns will be impacted by how they feel their leaders performed. In fact, the campaigns will tell their volunteers how their leader performed. “We won!”. Polls will be generated to show they won. A furious spin war will be waged with edicts to grassroots supporters to share, tweet, Instagram, TikTok, phone, doorknock, and telepathically transmit that their leader won the debate.
That’s where this story ends for now. The final ten days will be a roller coaster ride for all campaigns. Their hopes are invested in their leaders and in themselves. At the centre of it all is two campaign war rooms that are vying to govern. The Liberal team, is no doubt, facing the Conservative challenge squarely in the eyes now, and drawing upon its collective experience and confidence in order to prevail, while exhorting supporters to stay true and steady in order to beat off the surprising Conservative challenge. The Conservative team is thirsty for a win, yearning for its taste from the goblet of victory, made sweeter by the doubters, while keeping at bay the nagging feeling, nurtured by past defeats, that it could fall out of their grasp just when it seemed victory was so close.
Election 44 appears to be a close battle at the national level, but how is it playing out in Canada’s three largest provinces compared to the past two elections?
British Columbia – All three major national parties are competitive in B.C., with any of three capable of gaining a plurality of seats. Right now, current aggregated polling results via CBC’s Polltracker website show the Liberals holding steady compared to 2019, the Conservatives down slightly, and the NDP up (at the expense of the Greens, it seems). The upshot is that, in terms of seats, the standings of Liberals relative to the Conservatives would not change much in this scenario. For a major shift, one of the three parties needs to break from the pack.
Quebec is complicated, as usual. The Bloc is down and the Liberals, despite declining slightly, are holding their ground. The NDP and Conservatives are up compared to 2019, but at those levels, does not equate into significant seat gains. Plus du même?
Ontario is where the action is. To their detriment, Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives could not make gains in 2019 in this vote-rich battleground. This time, the Erin O’Toole Conservatives are running neck and neck with the Liberals, despite an uptick in support for the Peoples Party. Last election, the Liberals won Ontario by 9% and took 79/121 seats, almost the same as their majority win in 2015 when they won 80/121. Clearly, the Conservatives must make major gains here in order to win a plurality of seats. Flipping 18 seats from red to blue, everything else being equal, would lead to a tie in seats nation-wide.
The numbers in these battlegrounds will shift and move yet again. To borrow a golf saying, we’re now at “moving day at the Masters” meaning this is the time where parties will make their defining moves, or fall back. The next few days, including the debates, will set up the final round of Election 44. Who’s tee shot is going to land in the rough, who is going to be chipping from the sand trap, and who is going to drain that 44 foot birdie putt to win it all? It looks like the most important golf will be played in Ontario.
The Top 2 parties routinely took three-quarters of the popular vote between them until Preston Manning and Lucien Bouchard came along and blew up Canada’s political landscape. It hasn’t been the same since.
Going back to John Diefenbaker’s win in 1957 through to Brian Mulroney’s win in 1988, the Progressive Conservatives and Liberals had a duopoly, averaging 77% between them in the elections over that time. Since 1993, the top 2 parties have averaged only 66% between them, with other parties taking a greater share of the popular vote. And sometimes, the Liberals and Conservatives weren’t even in the top 2.
In 1993, the Progressive Conservative Party, which had won back-to-back majorities, disintegrated due to the centrifugal forces of the failure of the Meech Lake Accord and the imposition of the GST, plus a bunch of other stuff. The day after the 1993 election, those wearing blue pyjamas woke up in cold sweats facing a Quebec separatist party as Official Opposition led by a former senior Minister in the Mulroney government, a western alienation party as the third party led by a prominent small c conservative, and, relegated to fourth place, the once mighty PC party reduced to two seats. A waking nightmare! I imagine there is a plaque at the Albany Club that refers to this dark day.
Since 1993, the Top 2 parties have only combined for over 70% of the votes only twice – both when majority governments were formed (Harper 2011, Trudeau 2015).
The chart below shows the combined popular vote of the top 2 parties since 1957. For the most part, the Liberals (red) and (pre 1993-Progressive) Conservatives (blue) have been the top two parties. In terms of popular vote, the Reform Party and Canadian Alliance (purple) were 2nd place finishers in 1993, 1997, and 2000 elections. Jack Layton’s NDP (orange) finished second in 2011, the only time in 21 elections the Liberals were not in the Top 2.
The black line shows the margin of victory (popular vote) between the 1st and 2nd place parties. In two instances, the winning party, that went on to govern, had fewer votes than the 2nd place party. In 1979, Joe Clark’s PC’s won more seats but trailed the Liberals by over 4% in the popular vote. In 2019, Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives won the popular vote by about 1% but Justin Trudeau’s Liberals had more seats. Polling as of August 24th is shown, accounting for a combined 64% between the top 2 parties.
What the black line does show is that majorities happen when there is a significant margin between the top 2 parties. In the 1990s, when the Top 2 parties had less share of the vote, Jean Chrétien’s Liberals were walloping the split conservative factions, divided between Reform/Alliance and the PCs. Chrétien’s margin of victory was between 15% to 23% over those three elections. The right wingers got the ol’ Shawinigan handshake in those days.
It’s tightened up since then due to the Conservative merger leading into the 2004 election. Harper and Trudeau won majorities with 9% and 8% margins of victory respectively. In fact, since Diefenbaker, no party has won a majority with less than a 7.7% margin of victory. (Harper missed a majority in 2008 despite winning the popular vote by 11% – no matter how many votes you get in Alberta, you can only win a riding once per election)
It doesn’t mean that a majority can’t be won with a margin lower than 7%. Last election, the Trudeau Liberals were only 13 seats shy of a majority despite losing the popular vote. They had very efficient vote distribution. With votes in the right places, they could win a majority with less than a 5% margin over the Conservatives – and they would be making history if they did so. Right now, the public polls indicate the gap has tightened between the two parties in the first week of the campaign so if either party is going to take a majority, they have work to do.
It’s tough enough for any party to get to 40% these days, making the 50%+ wins of Diefenbaker in 1957 and Mulroney in 1984 ever more impressive. Both Progressive Conservatives, go figure.
The growing share of other parties since 1993 also makes it tougher to win a majority. The NDP, the Greens, and, most notably, the Bloc are taking seats off the table from the Top 2 parties. It was easy for Chrétien when he could dominate a split opposition just as it was easy for Harper in 2011 when he the centre-left was split. In the context of a competitive two-way race, with lots of other parties cluttering the landscape, it will take a combination of overall popular vote strength and efficiency, meaning winning more seats by a little versus winning fewer seats by a lot.
At the end of the day, we count seats not votes in Parliament. But the history of popular vote signals what it takes to win in the fragmented post-1993 era.
When it comes to winning a majority government, what does it take in terms of popular vote? While its the number of seats, and not the number of votes, that truly matters, popular vote is a guide as to the likelihood of whether the leading party forms a minority or majority government.
In the past 65 years, the magic number has been a minimum of 38.5% for a majority and a minimum of 33.1% (the Liberal 2019 result) for a plurality of the seats, which historically leads to a minority government. The highest popular vote that did not translate into a majority was 41.5% (Pearson, 1963), therefore, the modern-day range has been 38.5% to qualify for a majority and over 41.5% to most likely be free and clear of a minority.
In fact, the 2019 election was the first time the governing party was elected with less than 34% of the popular vote. Justin Trudeau’s 33.1% was the new low, falling beneath John A. Macdonald’s 34.8% from Canada’s first post-Confederation election in 1867.
In 2019, the relative standings of the major parties were fairly consistent except for a latter-campaign uptick for the NDP. No major reversals of fortune took place with no party able to pull away to gain a majority.
It was a different story in 2015. The Liberals eclipsed the NDP mid-campaign, won the ‘Stop Harper primary’, and gained separation over a static Conservative voter base. (In 2011, Jack Layton’s NDP eclipsed Michael Ignatieff’s Liberals during the writ period).
There are different pathways to a majority as parties cobble together seats across the provinces. For the Liberals, a assuming they are BLOCked from major gains in Quebec, it’s getting more out the regions outside of Ontario. For the Conservatives, it’s doing better, much better, in Ontario – in 2011, Stephen Harper won 69% of Ontario’s seats, but in 2019, Andrew Scheer only took 30% of the seats there. For both the reds and the blues, the competitive British Columbia battleground can add the mustard to the winning hot dog.
Momentum shifts can take place, sometimes imperceptibly. The public pollsters are telling us, in Election 2021, that no party has demonstrated it’s in ‘majority territory’. In this day and age, with the Bloc taking a good share of votes in Quebec, and the Greens and PPC carving upwards of 10% of the vote, a majority may not require 38.5%, but until a party climbs above 36-37%, it’s most likely that a minority government, in some form, will be the likely outcome.
Justin Trudeau’s Liberals won a plurality of seats with an even lower popular vote than 2019, dropping from 33.1% to 32.6%., thus it was the first time a government had been elected with less than 33% of the popular vote. Erin O’Toole’s Conservatives had a higher popular vote with 33.7%, though it was lower than Andrew Scheer’s level in 2019. The Liberals obviously had a more efficient vote, winning more seats by a slimmer margin, while the Conservatives won many seats by a large margin (e.g., Alberta and Saskatchewan).
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appears poised to call an election for September 20th with the hopes of attaining a majority of the seats. The Liberals won 157 seats in 2019, falling 13 short of a majority. Losing six seats in BC certainly didn’t help.
The Liberals enter this election with 11 seats in BC.
Party – BC standings
In 2019, there were 32 seats in BC that stayed the course and 10 seats that switched hands, mostly at the expense of the Liberals.
Liberal – floor crossing to independent
Steveston – Richmond East
Pitt Meadows – Maple Ridge
Cloverdale – Langley City
Mission – Matsqui – Fraser Canyon
Kelowna – Lake Country
South Surrey – White Rock
Conservative – Liberal (by-election)
Nanaimo – Ladysmith
NDP – Green (by-election)
Port Moody – Coquitlam
Kootenay – Columbia
*The Liberals had 17 seats heading into the 2019 election, with the election of Gordie Hogg in the South Surrey-White Rock by-election offsetting the loss of Jody Wilson-Raybould who was sitting as an Independent at dissolution. Paul Manly of the Green Party won a 2019 by-election in Nanaimo-Ladysmith, filling the seat vacated by NDP MP Sheila Malcolmson.
The Conservatives gained eight seats in the 2019 election (winning back one that they lost in a by-election), though Conservative governments have typically relied on winning a majority of seats in BC, or close to it. In Stephen Harper’s 2011 election victory, the Conservatives won 21 of 36 BC seats.
Given the amount of dancing and celebrating on Election Night, the NDP campaign was seen as a ‘success’ in 2019 despite losing seats nation-wide and in BC. Blessed by low expectations, they ended up salvaging 11 of 13 held seats in BC, but failed to win back Nanaimo-Ladysmith which they lost in a by-election. The Greens doubled their seat count, while Jody Wilson-Raybould defended her seat as an independent.
What’s ahead in the 2021 election?
The Liberals have been leading in BC according to various pollsters. Pre-writ polls are an unreliable indicator of future events, since most voters won’t tune-in until the writ period. But going with the prevailing trend right now, the Liberals look poised to retain and add seats, the NDP are competitive and in a position to add seats, and the Conservatives’ biggest battle will be in seat retention. Again, things can change. “Campaigns matter”, scream political strategists everywhere.
As of Friday, August 13th, the CBC poll tracker has the popular vote in BC at an aggregated 34% Liberal, 29% NDP, and 26% Conservative. This is basically a return to 2015 popular vote numbers in BC for the Liberals, when they had a plurality of the seats. The Conservatives are going in the wrong direction. The NDP look stronger compared to 2015 and 2019, while the Greens appear to be struggling compared to the last election.
What’s striking about the table below is how fast things change. Stephen Harper’s Conservatives had a massive win in 2011, along with a strong popular vote result from Jack Layton’s NDP. The dramatic resurgence of the Liberals in 2015 reshaped the landscape into a 3-way BC battle, which is where we are at today.
Party – Popular vote (BC)
A rough application of current aggregated poll results to seats would see the Liberals win about 19 seats, the Conservatives cut down to 9, the NDP up to 13, and the Greens down to 1.
The campaign hasn’t even started yet, so you can consider those projections as written in sidewalk chalk during a rainstorm.
But where is the battleground right now? Largely in those seats listed above – the ones that changed hands between 2015 and 2019. Given the Liberals’ current strength, this is where they would likely win next. The NDP would see opportunities to win Conservative seats and edge out both parties in tight 3-way races.
Liberal Targets (previously held)
Liberal Targets (not held 2015-2019)
South Surrey-White Rock
Pitt Meadows-Maple Ridge
The previously-held targets are fairly straight-forward. They won there recently and, with Conservative weakness, can likely win there again or come close. In the other targets, the Liberals almost won Port Moody-Coquitlam in 2019 and presents itself as a juicy target. The rest of the list are outliers. Richmond-Centre has held firm behind Alice Wong, but this could be the time the Liberals win back the seat held by Raymond Chan for several terms? Langley-Aldergrove, by virtue of being a suburban riding in Metro Vancouver, could be in play (the BC NDP won there last year). It is hard to envision the NDP losing a seat to the Liberals on Vancouver Island – it would require Green voters to defect to the Liberals. Unlikely, but Victoria may be the Liberals best shot on the Island (some wags may argue Esquimalt-Saanich-Sooke). Kamloops was close in 2015 and would require Conservative collapse of sorts. The inimitable Terry Lake learned the hard way in 2019. Right now, I would expect the Liberals would view 17 seats in BC as a minimum target with stretch goal of 19-20.
NDP Targets (previously held)
NDP Targets (not held 2015-)
Pitt Meadows-Maple Ridge
Burnaby North – Seymour
The NDP are likely circling Nanaimo-Ladysmith like a Stanley Park coyote, looking to take a bite out of the Green Caucus. With Greens in disarray, MP Paul Manly may need to win as a virtual Independent. Port Moody-Coquitlam was held by Fin Donnelly and was a near-miss in 2019. The belt of ridings on the north side of the Fraser River from Coquitlam out to Mission and up the Canyon have elected many NDP representatives over the years and could be fertile ground if the NDP moves up the ladder. Burnaby North-Seymour seems like a reasonably safe Liberal seat, but the last election saw the mid-campaign firing of the Conservative candidate. Now that is reset, and the NDP candidate is a known quantity on the North Shore, it might intrigue orange strategists. Another outlier could be Vancouver-Granville where the NDP would expect to run second and could contend with a strong candidate and JWR dynamics. NDPers may argue that Cloverdale-Langley City could follow the pattern of the BC election where NDP MLAs were elected in hitherto safe ‘free enterprise’ seats. My take is that the federal Liberals will be the non-Conservative contender.
The Conservatives, until they right the ship, will be thinking retention. Of course, in order to win the election, they need to do a lot better than that. A lot can happen in 35 days and recent history proves that. Where would the Conservatives win next, beyond their current seats, if the winds of change blow in their direction?
South Okanagan – West Kootenay: NDP edged the Conservatives by 3% in 2019
North Island – Powell River: this is one riding with an issue that favours the Conservatives – salmon farming. Conservatives offer a clear alternative to NDP and Liberals. NDP edged CPC by 5% in 2019.
In the Lower Mainland, the Conservatives have retreated from the City and have done poorly in the suburbs in successive elections. Targets to reclaim would be:
Coquitlam-Port Coquitlam: former stomping grounds of James Moore
Fleetwood-Port Kells: narrow loss to the Liberals in 2019
West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky: with Avi Lewis as NDP candidate, a usually strong Green effort, and Liberal who won with 35% last time, Conservatives could fantasize about ‘coming up the middle’. Former CPC MP is running again.
Vancouver South: Liberals won by only 8% in 2019. Conservaitives would need to do well in Chinese community.
As for the cuddly Greens, they don’t look as cuddly this time with their dirty laundry strewn about. Elizabeth May appears to be electable in her own right and not requiring brand support. Paul Manly, as noted above, will be in for a tougher time. While they have contended on the South Island in the past, it doesn’t look like fortunes favours them this time.
That’s what the battleground looks like to me … today. Prove me wrong in the comments as you wish.
The floor crossing of Jenica Atwin from the Green Party of Canada to Justin Trudeau’s Liberals is noteworthy in one respect – it’s the first time a federal Green MP has crossed the floor to another party. It completes a ‘trade’ that happened 13 years ago when erstwhile Liberal MP Blair Wilson from British Columbia crossed to the Greens to become its first MP in Parliament. Atwin becomes the latest in a long line of Canadian politicians who have crossed the floor to sit with a different political party than the one they shared a ballot with in the previous election.
Not so long ago, a Liberal went Conservative. I had never heard of Leona Alleslev, the Member of Parliament for Aurora-Oak Ridges-Richmond Hill, before she switched from red to blue.
Most of the time, the end is nigh for that politician. Some are pushed by desperation. Some are motivated by pique. Others for genuine policy and ideological reasons. Some are able to make the change stick, as Alleslev did in the 2019 election when she was re-elected as a Conservative.
Floor crossing is older than Canada itself. Wikipedia informs us that, in 1866, an anti-Confederate politician in New Brunswick switched sides when he did not receive a desired cabinet post. We could go back to WWI when many Liberal MPs left Wilfrid Laurier and joined with the Unionist government under Robert Borden. Or to 1935 when British Columbia’s H.H. Stevens bolted the Conservative barn to form the Reconstructionist Party.
At times, a floor crossing can signal a sea change in politics. Réne Lévesque leaving the Quebec Liberal Party in the 1960s to form the Parti Québécois is one of the most momentous moves in Canadian political history. It led to the election of the first Péquiste government in 1976 and a referendum on sovereignty-association in 1980. Watch the documentary Champions to see Lévesque’s impact and his enduring rivalry with Pierre Trudeau.
In 1990, Lucien Bouchard spectacularly left the Mulroney government after the collapse of the Meech Lake accord, forming the Bloc Québécois and taking other Quebec PC and Liberal MPs with him, including Liberal MP Jean Lapierre. Bouchard led the Oui forces to the brink of victory in 1995, and shortly thereafter became Premier of Quebec.
The 1993 election saw the collapse of the Progressive Conservatives to two seats with Preston Manning’s Reform Party dominating Western Canada. After Jean Chrétien continually swept up in Ontario, PC Senator Gerry St. Germain was one of the first to attempt to unify the Conservative parties and changed his allegiance in the Senate from PC to become the first Canadian Alliance senator in 2000. Later, eleven Canadian Alliance MPs left caucus to sit as the “DRC” – Democratic Representative Caucus when they couldn’t get along with Alliance leader Stockwell Day, and included some political heavyweights like the first Reform MP ever elected, Deb Grey. The DRCs would morph into a coalition with Joe Clark’s (second-coming) PC caucus: the PC-DRC. Ultimately, most everyone got back together under the leadership of Stephen Harper after new PC leader Peter Mackay agreed to merge the PCs with Stephen Harper’s Alliance. Harper became the leader of the new Conservative Party and held Paul Martin to a minority in 2004 before winning his own minority in 2006. (Joe didn’t cross, he stayed PC until the end). The key point is that floor crossing influenced the course of events between 2000 and 2004.
In 2018, we saw Maxime Bernier jump out of Air Scheer without a parachute. It caused a rearguard action that hampered Scheer’s Conservatives as they readied themselves to fight the Liberals in the 2019 election. For Bernier, the impact of this Xtreme floor crossing was the sound of hitting political ground zero with an ear-splitting splat.
Some floor crossings reflect the ebb and flow of political tides. Scott Brison was elected as a Progressive Conservative, but left when that party merged with the Alliance to form the modern-day Conservative Party. Brison became a senior Liberal cabinet minister. One can argue that he represented a shift in Canadian politics where some Progressive Conservatives migrated to the Liberals. Many politicians, like Bob Rae and Ujjal Dosanjh, sat for one party, then came back to run for another party later, reflecting how they had migrated through the political spectrum.
Provincially, MLAs in both the Saskatchewan PCs and Liberals crossed the floor to the new Saskatchewan Party in 1997, which has governed the province since 2007. The PCs were extinguished and the Liberals are in the wilderness.
In 2002, Yukon NDP MLA Dennis Fentie left his party to join the Yukon Party. A month later he was leader and later that year he became Premier, serving until 2011.
The leader of the New Brunswick NDP from 2011-2017, Dominic Cardy, found himself as a New Brunswick PC MLA in the government of Blaine Higgs. In fact, he’s now the Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development and has been heralded for his role in advocating for a strong early response to COVID-19. In Cardy’s case, he didn’t “cross the floor” but nonetheless a rare sighting of a political leader switching sides and his experience going from the political hinterland to inner sanctum likely not lost on Jenica Atwin.
A candidate for the Liberal leadership in Newfoundland famously switched sides afterward. John Crosbie was a Minister of Finance under longtime Premier Joey Smallwood. Crosbie, and other younger Liberal MLAs, like Clyde Wells, chafed under Smallwood’s leadership and left Caucus, sitting as ‘Reform Liberals’. When Smallwood announced his retirement, Crosbie stepped up to run as Liberal leader. Smallwood came back to oppose him and won. Crosbie then left the Liberals to run as a Progressive Conservative, winning, and sitting in the new government of Frank Moores. He would go on to be elected federally in 1976, serve as Joe Clark’s Finance Minister, become a major contender for the 1983 PC national leadership, serve as a heavyweight in Brian Mulroney’s cabinet, and serve as Newfoundland’s Lieutenant-Governor. Quite a career for a party switcher! Clyde Wells stuck with the Liberals and would serve as Premier, famously scuttling the Meech Lake Accord promoted by his old caucus ally, Crosbie.
BC has had three significant floor-crossings that led to a restructuring of political support bases. Leading up to the 1952 election, Conservative MLA WAC Bennett left that party and migrated toward to the Social Credit Party. The leaderless party won the plurality of seats in 1952 and Bennett became its leader (and, ultimately, Premier) after the election. Bennett governed for 20 years.
Then, following his defeat in 1972, his son Bill Bennett, the new leader, recruited former Liberal leader and MLA Dr. Pat McGeer, Allan Williams, and Garde Gardom to join the Socreds, along with PC MLA Hugh Curtis. All four floor crossers would play major roles in Bennett’s government, which lasted 11 years. He also attracted former Liberal leadership candidate Bill VanderZalm to run as a Socred in 1975 too. Then, in the 1990s, there was a two-step process. First, four Social Credit MLAs left the former dynasty in ruins when they turned away from the fledgling BC Liberals under Gordon Campbell, to join the BC Reform Party in 1994. Their defection ultimately benefited the ruling NDP – Glen Clark would win a majority in 1996 while losing the popular vote. Campbell corralled the Reformers after 1996 and remaining Reform MLA Richard Neufeld crossed the floor to the BC Liberals, marking the formalization of a de facto coalition. Neufeld served as BC Liberal minister for seven years and the BC Liberals governed continuously for 16 years.
(A footnote to the 1975 example above is that Frank Calder, British Columbia’s first First Nations parliamentarian, lost his NDP nomination in the riding of Atlin leading up to the 1975 election. Having been first elected in 1949, Calder brought his winning ways to the Socreds and was elected yet again. Four years later, he lost by one vote to the NDP’s ‘Landslide’ Al Passarell. Passarell would later cross the floor from the NDP to the Socreds).
Some floor crossings backfire spectacularly. Arguably, the WildRose defections to the ruling PC’s under Jim Prentice destroyed the political careers of those MLAs, like former leader Danielle Smith, and boomeranged disastrously on the Prentice government. It looked too cute, too orchestrated – the overdog overdoing it. Belinda Stronach’s floor crossing to the Liberals in 2005 helped save the minority Martin government for a time, but arguably galvanized Stephen Harper’s Conservatives in the forthcoming election in 2006.
Some leave and come home again. The most famous example is Winston Churchill going Conservative-Liberal-Conservative. The aforementioned Jean Lapierre left the Liberals to join the Bloc Quebecois upon the election of Jean Chretien as Liberal leader. He returned to the Liberals under Paul Martin and was a senior cabinet minister in his government. Then there’s Joe Peschisolido who was a leading Young Liberal who drifted right and was elected as an Alliance MP then crossed the floor to the Liberals. After a stint out of politics, he was elected again as a Liberal MP in 2015 before his defeat in 2019. Gordon Wilson was Liberal leader in BC from 1987 to 1993. He left, with fellow MLA and wife Judi Tyabji, to form his own party, the PDA, and won his seat again in 1996 under that banner. He was recruited by NDP Premier Glen Clark to join the NDP cabinet in the late 1990s and then ran for the leadership of the NDP, unsuccessfully. Since 2001, he has been out of elected politics, but he did go ‘home’ again in 2013 when he made an intervention in that year’s election campaign in favour of BC Liberal Premier Christy Clark (who once worked for him) and against NDP Leader Adrian Dix (who once recruited him). Never dull in BC.
Some floor crossings weren’t meant to be. BC Liberal MLA John van Dongen left the BC Liberals over unresolvable disagreements. He joined the BC Conservatives, but within months, left them over unresolvable disagreements. Conservative MP Eve Adams defection to the Liberals on the eve of the 2015 election reeked of desperation. Her career was soon over, at least for now. A husband and wife both crossed the floor from the New Brunswick PCs to the Liberals in 2007, but by 2010 they were both out of politics. As noted above, one-term West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky Country Liberal MP Blair Wilson got into some hot water and would eventually leave the Liberal Caucus to sit as an independent. Just before the 2008 election, he migrated to the Greens to become their first ever MP in Canada. He failed in his bid for re-election, as a Green.
Some cross and never look back, like Scott Brison and John Crosbie. Dr. Keith Martin was elected as a Reformer in 1993 and ran for the leadership of the Canadian Alliance. He crossed the floor to the Liberals in 2004 and served as a Liberal until 2011. David Kilgour was a longtime Progressive Conservative MP. Even though John Turner was his brother-in-law, he stayed as a PC, but after Turner left, Kilgour crossed to the Liberals and continued from there.
Some floor-crossers are peripatetic. Paul Hellyer was elected as a Liberal MP in 1949 and went on to be Minister of National Defence under Lester Pearson and a major contender for the leadership of the Liberals in 1968, placing second on the first ballot. He fell out with Pierre Trudeau the following year and tried to form his own party. He then crossed the floor to the PCs and in 1976, he ran for the leadership of that party. He would return to the Liberals in 1982 and ran unsuccessfully for a nomination in his old seat in 1988. He then formed another party, the Canada Action Party, and would try to merge it with the NDP. At the age of 97, he may have another run in him, but for which party? (fun fact: he’s the longest serving member of the Privy Council)
There’s also the interesting case of Garth Turner. Elected as a Progressive Conservative MP in 1988 and ran for the leadership of the party in 1993. He lost his seat and returned as a Conservative MP in 2006. He defeated Liberal Gary Carr who had himself changed parties having been elected originally as a provincial Tory. Turner then fell afoul of the Conservatives, went independent, flirted with the Greens, and finally joined Stephane Dion’s Liberals before Lisa Raitt ended his political career in 2008.
Countless others have gone to sit as independents only to return later. Some are sent because they were naughty, others leave because they’re mad but come back once they’re happy. BC MLA Blair Lekstrom left caucus over the handling of the HST but came back after a leadership change. MLAs and MPs who never leave, and feel that they are team players, can often be annoyed and upset when those that leave are welcomed back. If handled properly, it can be seen as beneficial to the greater good that they return. Alternatively, it can be seen as rewarding bad behaviour.
Surrey MP Chuck Cadman was elected as a Reform MP and carried on as an Alliance MP, but prior to the 2004 election, he lost his nomination. He ran as an independent and won. In 2005, battling cancer, he was pivotal in keeping Paul Martin’s minority government in power during critical votes, against the wishes of his former colleagues. Liberal MP John Nunziata was bounced from the Liberal fold in 1996 after voting against Paul Martin’s budget. He showed them – he won re-election as an independent in 1997. They showed him – he lost to the Liberals in 2000. Gilles Bernier was a Progressive Conservative MP elected in the 1984 Mulroney sweep, but in 1993, the Rt. Hon. Kim Campbell would not approve his candidacy due to fraud charges (he was later acquitted). Bernier ran as an independent and won his seat. He was appointed Ambassador of Haiti by Prime Minister Chrétien. He managed to miss the 1993 PC wipeout and appointed ambassador. The benefits of going against the grain may have inspired his son, Maxime.
There’s Bill Casey who was elected three times a PC, and twice a Conservative before announcing he would not support the Harper government’s budget. He was bounced and ran as an Independent, winning 69% of the vote in 2008. A clear case of constituents agreeing with his reasons for opposing his party. He would resign his seat later, before returning in 2015 as a Liberal MP – making it four different ways he had been elected – PC, Conservative, Independent, and Liberal.
And, of course, there is Jody Wilson-Raybould. Considered a ‘star candidate’ in the 2015 campaign, and made Minister of Justice, JWR’s shocking confrontation with her then-colleagues over SNC Lavalin gripped Ottawa for months in early 2019, culminating in her departure from the Liberal Caucus. She won re-election as an Independent and appears intent to seek re-election on that basis.
Another ‘star candidate’ from BC, David Emerson, shockingly defected to the Conservatives days after the 2006 federal election effectively marking the end of his career in electoral politics. The ink was barely dry on the ballots when he reversed course, causing much consternation among his former Liberal supporters. But it provided Stephen Harper with experience and depth in cabinet for two years and demoralized the Liberals, who sat out of power for nine years. Emerson, like JWR, did not have any roots in the Liberal Party. It is with some peril that political managers recruit candidates from outside the party – those candidates do not ‘owe’ anyone and tend to be untethered to party loyalties. In JWR’s case, the reasons for her leaving the Liberals were front page news for months. It was not unexpected that there would be a break-up (in fact, she was bounced from the Caucus). Emerson, on the other hand, gave no hint he was leaving. He was approached, he agreed. The voters that elected him, and party members that supported him, were caught unaware. There is the old argument – “I can get more done in government than Opposition”, which is a reason provided by Jenica Atwin.
Alberta PC MP Jack Horner crossed over to Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals in 1977, joining the Trudeau cabinet. There has rarely been a good time to be a federal Liberal in Alberta and this wasn’t one of them. His constituents did not reward him for his efforts in the subsequent election. Following the Atwin switch, I talked to a grizzled old Prairie Liberal who was shuddering with Jack Horner flashbacks. The ‘betrayal’ of constituents by Horner was not unlike that felt by Emerson’s constituents in Vancouver-Kingsway. Around the time Horner ran into the arms of Pierre Trudeau, Winnipeg’s James Richardson, a member of PET’s cabinet, left the Liberal Caucus never to return, sitting as an independent. He tried to set up his own party then eventually helped found the Reform Party of Canada after he left elected life. My sources tell me his crossing was notable in that he told the Clerk, “I’m sitting over there from now on”. And off he went.
Many, many, many more floor crossings happen in the imaginations of political back roomers. There is always the threat of a disgruntled MLA or MP taking off. Most of the time, that representative is governed by some restraint. The voters elected him or her largely on the basis of their party label. Imagine you worked hard in support of your party only to find that the recipient of your hard work crossed no-man’s land to sit in enemy trenches? Many would-be floor-crossers have surely taken a step back when realizing they would have to explain their actions to the volunteers who backed them.
To be accepted by the voters, the conflict usually has to be real and substantive and/or that representative must have a lot of personal credibility. If it’s opportunistic, and imposed from the top, it’s not likely to go down well with the voters or the supporters of the sending and receiving party. Not many like a turncoat, especially when they weren’t part of the process.
What floor crossings can demonstrate is the dynamic state of our political system. In the ‘first past the post system’, parties are always in a state of constant movement. Parties continually search for a plurality of votes and seats, and attracting someone who represents a set of ideas or representative of a community of interest is a way to grow a party’s base. A floor crossing can give a tiny party a foothold in Parliament. Parties that fail to unify their members behind a common purpose can disintegrate, with floor crossings one such manifestation. Unlike the United States, Canadian parties can rise and fall (and rise again). There is much more fluidity. Real policy differences – such as Quebec independence – can lead to dramatic changes and fracture coalitions. Strong leadership glues coalitions together, unifying disparate elements. When it comes down to it, elected representatives are just people, unbound to their party label. They have the ability to exercise their free will.
As University of Manitoba Political Science professor Royce Koop puts it, “When an MP crosses the floor, it’s a beautiful reminder that in Canada we cast our votes for candidates, not parties”.
B.C.’s electoral boundaries are about to be redrawn, increasing the size of the legislature yet again, while eroding representation in rural areas outside the faster-growing major cities. It’s a losing formula that causes continued bloat in the size of the legislature, while failing those in small communities around the province.
There are two issues at play and, if we untangle them, there is a better solution for the Electoral Boundaries Commission to consider:
• Rural ridings need strong representation. Rural MLAs have multitudes of small communities located far apart, and many have large Indigenous populations. The riding of Fraser-Nicola, for example, has dozens of small communities and First Nations, compared to where I live in Vancouver-Fairview, which is one of 11 ridings in the City of Vancouver. The demands are very different on rural MLAs, and few would argue that the role of rural MLAs should be made harder.
• Representation by population. Rep-by-pop in B.C. was strengthened through the Electoral Boundaries Commission Act in the 1980s, precipitated by the Dixon case that put the focus on voter equality. At the time, some ridings were 12 to 16 times larger than other ridings. Because of urban growth, pure rep-by-pop in our system today would either dramatically increase the geographic size of rural ridings, or dramatically increase the size of the legislature, way beyond the proposed increase to 93.
How do we reconcile these mutually exclusive goals?
Let’s do something we are already doing in regional districts and weight the votes of our MLAs. In Metro Vancouver, for example, the mayor of Belcarra gets one vote at the regional district table, but the mayor of Vancouver gets five votes. Elected officials in all of Metro Vancouver’s local jurisdictions have weighted votes based on the population of their community, as they do in other regional districts across B.C. It works fine — the larger centres have clout to reflect their size, and the smaller communities get a voice and are at the table.
Provincially, we can do something much simpler than the regional district formula by having one vote for MLAs from rural ridings in regions like the North, Kootenays and North Island, and two votes for MLAs in urban regions like the Lower Mainland and the Capital Region of greater Victoria.
It would allow for sensibly drawn one-vote rural ridings that allow for fair, effective representation.
In urban B.C., we would not need to increase the number of ridings, as each urban MLA would have two votes, because they would represent roughly twice as many constituents than a rural riding.
The outcome of votes in the legislature would better reflect the population, while rural ridings would get better representation, since their MLA could focus on a smaller number of communities.
While rural ridings would lose their percentage share of seats in the legislature, they would be a higher percentage of the people in the legislature, providing them more opportunities for representation on committees, leadership roles, and in cabinet.
An important consideration is First Nations representation. The Dixon case led to the elimination of the Atlin riding in northwest B.C., which had a majority population of First Nations people. It elected the first First Nations MLA, Frank Calder, in 1949, and was represented by a First Nations MLA for 35 of 42 years until 1991.
After Atlin was eliminated, there was not a First Nations MLA elected until 2016. Protecting rural ridings provides more opportunities for First Nations representation in the legislature.
A weighted legislature, as outlined, is not proportional representation or other schemes that have failed over the years. Each voter would vote for one MLA. It also would not impact who wins elections. The votes are in the Lower Mainland, and that is not going to change. A winning political party needs to win there.
Cranking up the number of seats in the legislature is a losing game of math. It’s time to face the issue and find a way to both provide rep-by-pop and protect rural ridings.
Let the new Electoral Boundaries Commission explore weighted votes, a more inclusive solution for the benefit of all British Columbians. Then we will see if this idea floats or sinks under the weight of its own weighting.
(Thanks to Henry Waatainen for his editing help and advice)
The op-ed above has its roots in a submission I made to the Citizens Assembly on Electoral Reform in 2004. At that time, I put forward the idea of regional weighting to address rural representation, among other proposals. I worked in the Gordon Campbell government from 2001 to 2003 when the BC Liberals held an overwhelming number of seats – 77 of 79. As Director of Communications to the Government Caucus, I worked alongside practically every MLA in the House and gained an understanding of their jobs. We supported their constituency communications and it was apparent how rural MLAs had considerably more burdens placed on them than urban MLAs when it came to local accountability and expectations. Having followed the boundaries process closely over the years from the beginning of the post-Dixon case processes – the Fisher Commission and the Wood Commission for starters – the challenge of reconciling rural representation with urban growth was a thorny issue already by 2004. The size of the Legislature had grown from 57 seats in 1986 to 79 seats in 2001 (and now we are heading to 93). So, I made my modest pitch to consider a weighted formula. It was met with slow claps and deafening applause and so it returned to the dusty shelves of my brain for 17 years.
In addition to regional weighting, I also proposed a return to an Alternative Vote. This is the system used in 1952 and 1953 in BC, and in fact is used in party leadership selections and candidate nomination meetings. You vote once, but you rank your 1st, 2nd, 3rd (or more) choices, depending on how many candidates. The winner is the one who gets a majority. Essentially, this is how the Socreds improbably came to power in 1952 by climbing the ladder in the second and third counts, usurping the CCF who would have otherwise had the plurality of seats. WAC Bennett did away with the system following the 1953 election. Since 2004, I’ve lost a little bit of my enthusiasm for this system, but I’m still open to it. The benefit is that you can vote with your heart on the first choice and your head with the second. The upstart, little parties can get first votes without threat of vote splitting. And the least-opposed candidate should win in the end. The downside is that it can be a gang-up against the incumbent government, and it can oxygenate fringe parties that can be destructive. However, that’s democracy and an AAV system is not as rewarding to fringe parties as proportional representation.
Finally, I proposed to the Citizens Assembly that non-voting seats should be considered for leaders of un-represented parties that received a minimum percentage of the popular vote, but did not gain a seat. If, say, 10% of British Columbians vote for a party and do not return an MLA, why not provide an opportunity for that party to at least be heard on the floor of the Legislature? They could be provided rights to speak, move motions, and have many of the privileges of MLAs… except vote.
The idea of non-voting representatives is not a new one. The US House of Representatives has six non-voting members – from the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, US Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands. The delegate from the Virigin Islands, Stacey Plaskett, was an Impeachment Manager earlier this year.
Taking the idea of non-voting members a bit further, in 2004, I proposed seats on the floor for Indigenous British Columbians. Again, this is not a new idea. The State of Maine historically had representation in its Assembly for the Penobscot Nation and Passamaquoddy Tribe, dating back to the early 1800s, though in recent years, their representation was withdrawn.
The Cherokee Nation asserts that it has treaty rights entitling it to a Delegate to the US Congress. As well, the Choctaw Nation has rights stemming from an 1830 Treaty, but requires Congress to seat their delegate (it’s never happened). These are interesting examples that should challenge us to consider how our Legislative Assembly can include more voices. It does not require departing from the principle of elected members, represented by the people, having the final say. But, I believe, there can be room for more inclusivity in terms of voices.
Should BC consider Indigenous representation on the floor of the House? My 2004 submission was influenced by the work of trail-blazing Member of Parliament and Senator Len Marchand. Len was a great man who fought hard for Indigenous representation. He was the first First Nations MP elected in BC history, in 1968. The fact that Jody Wilson-Raybould was only the second, elected in 2015, goes to show how difficult it has been for Indigenous people to attain elected office. I wrote about this in my blog in 2015, after JWR’s election. In the 1980s, Len advocated for guaranteed representation for Indigenous peoples. His argument, as I recall, was that there should be as many Indigenous voting seats as population warrants. At the time, it amounted to about 9 seats (3% * about 300 seats), but would be more today. My 2004 proposal was more modest and attached itself to US-style non-voting seats. Since then, there are now three First Nations MLAs in the Legislature, but that shouldn’t be any reason to be complacent. Until Melanie Mark’s election in 2016, there had only been two First Nations MLAs in BC history – Frank Calder and Larry Guno – and they were both elected in the now-extinct riding of Atlin. I would like to see more First Nations elected at riding level, and I think my 2021 proposal on rural ridings will help that to some extent. In terms of non-voting seats on the floor, I would leave that entirely to the opinion of Indigenous leaders as to whether they thought the idea had merit or not. (And by the way, I recommend the biographies of both Len Marchand and Frank Calder).
With reference to the Citizens Assembly above, for those who aren’t aware, or had forgotten, it was an initiative of the Gordon Campbell government to consider options as to how BC governs itself. Former BC Liberal leader and respected commentator Gordon Gibson was appointed to develop recommendations on how such an Assembly could be structured. Two people, a man and a woman, from each of BC’s then-79 ridings were selected basically at random, plus two Indigenous members, and finally, the chair of the Assembly, Jack Blaney, who was appointed by the government. It had a brilliant staff including Dr. Ken Carty and reformed journalist Don MacLachlan. The Assembly members toured BC and heard from citizens like myself who had ideas about how BC should be represented. They produced recommendations and a report that was submitted to the Legislature, and their recommendations were put to referendum in 2005. The Campbell government required a threshold of 60% of the vote with a majority in 60% of the ridings.
While the Citizens Assembly did not take my advice, they did develop recommendations that were supported by its members. I appreciated the opportunity to have my say. In the end, their proposal, complicated as it was, almost succeeded, winning majority support in 77 of 79 constituencies but falling short of the 60% support required. Elections BC report is here. A similar proposal was put to province-wide referendum again in 2009, but failed by a wider margin. A government-driven proposal for proportional representation failed recently by referendum, in 2018. I wrote about my opposition to that proposal here.
As for the current Electoral Boundaries process, we’ll see what happens. More to say on that later.
It comes down to math: how slim is the margin and how many votes are outstanding? US election? No, we’re still Biden time waiting for the British Columbia final count.
In the seven closest seats where BC Liberals are leading, two require a slight deviation from Election Day results to flip the results to the NDP – Vernon-Monashee and Abbotsford-Mission.
Vernon-Monashee incumbent MLA Eric Foster leads by 0.9% while the pile of outstanding votes represents 31% of total ballots. Therefore, the NDP challenger needs to win the remaining pile by 2.1% to win (an overall swing of 3%). In Abbotsford-Mission, NDP challenger and Mission’s Mayor Pam Alexis needs to win the remaining pile of votes (29% of all votes) by 2.5%, a modest swing of 3.6% compared to the Election Day count.
The NDP needs to win the remaining pile of votes in Vancouver-Langara and Surrey-White Rock by 7% and 7.4% respectively, which would be swings of 12.8% and 11.7% respectively.
Surrey South, Kamloops-North Thompson, and Fraser-Nicola look on the outer realm of possibility given the 18%-20% swings required to flip the seats orange.
What about the ridings with slim NDP leads? ‘Everyone’ assumes the NDP have an advantage on mail-in and absentee, but there is one riding where the margin is razor-thin: Richmond-South Centre.
BC Liberal Alexa Loo trails the NDP’s Henry Yao by 124 votes or a 1.5% margin. While there are only 5,280 ballots to be counted, there were only 8,150 votes counted on Election Day. Almost 40% of the total votes are yet to be counted and Loo needs to win the remaining pile by 2.3%. This is when you wonder at what point in the campaign people cast their vote, and whether there might be cultural or demographic differences in the make-up of voters that push the outcome to Loo or Yao.
It’s a tougher slog for other BC Liberal candidates, who require double-digit swings in order to overtake their adversaries. In Vancouver-False Creek, over half of the votes are yet to be counted. Is there a Sam Sullivan factor given his high name recognition? He needs a 12.7% swing.
Parksville-Qualicum’s incumbent MLA Michelle Stilwell has the highest number of outstanding votes to be counted, among the close races. With 13, 308 outstanding votes, representing 42% of the total, Stilwell is hoping that her base of older supporters went to bed early and voted-by-mail. She needs a 12.2% swing. Similarly for newcomers Matt Pitcairn in Richmond-Steveston who needs a 12.1% swing to overtake the NDP’s Kelly Greene, while Margaret Kunst needs an 11.3% swing in Langley East to topple the NDP’s Megan Dykeman.
The riding of Chilliwack-Kent will resolve itself in the final count as incumbent MLA Laurie Throness trails the NDP’s Kelli Paddon by 195 votes or a 1.2% margin. Throness is no longer a part of the BC Liberal fold, but he may still benefit from votes cast by mail earlier in the campaign by voters who assumed they were voting for him on that basis. It will be one of the top 4 closest ridings to watch.